In 2008, Allison Hopelain and Russell Moore opened Camino on Grand Avenue, transforming what was once a furniture store into a destination restaurant celebrated for its rustic-yet-refined take on California cuisine. At the end of this year, they plan to close the Oakland restaurant.
The heart of Camino is a gigantic wood-fire hearth, where Moore, a 20-year Chez Panisse veteran, and his chefs cook on its open flames. Almost everything on the regularly changing menu — from sirloin steaks and lamb legs à la ficelle to pans of paella and whole Dungeness crab — is prepared in the fireplace.
“I’ll really miss the fireplace and watching Russ cooking in [it]. It will be really weird not seeing that,” Hopelain told Nosh.
A prominent, defining keystone of Camino, that open hearth is also what makes the restaurant a challenging and physically demanding place to run. That, and Moore’s dedication to doing things just so, like using only the freshest, responsibly grown produce, butchering and preparing whole animals, and getting the most out of every ingredient, whether it’s vinegar made from collecting the last dregs in wine bottles or carrot and beet tops made into jam. Over its 10 years, Moore has had to work the line every day.
“Staffing has been difficult for a little while now. It’s a difficult restaurant to work at as a cook,” Hopelain said. “It’s hard to keep people long enough that they’re working at their peak here.” She explained that during the restaurant’s early years, chefs would often stay for a period of four to six years, but eventually, kitchen staff started leaving after just two or so years, which meant more time and effort was needed for training and building rapport. “It never felt like the team that we had built at a certain point.”
“It doesn’t get easier,” she said about running the restaurant. “It’s hard or harder now than it was 10 years ago. It’s not a job where you’re progressing and moving forward at any predictable rate. It requires so much from us, which also makes it so special.”
The restaurant’s size plays a part in its exacting nature, as well.
“An 80 to 100 seat restaurant is not where it’s at,” Hopelain said. “The size makes it so you have to work all the time. You have to have a lot of staff to make it work; that’s very challenging.”
In 2014, Camino changed to a no-tipping format, raising prices on its menu to be able to pay its staff a fixed hourly wage. The Camino website spells out the reasoning behind the policy: “As working owners, we have tried to instill a sense of teamwork at Camino — a place where each member of the team — waiters, bartenders, cooks, hosts and dishwashers— are all involved in serving our guests … Our employees are our greatest assets, and we feel that that compensating them fairly for their work is crucial to their well-being and to the success of our restaurant. We hope that you feel the same.”
Hopelain said the employees were first to come to mind when she and Moore made the decision to close.
“We told everybody [on staff] before we told anybody,” she said. “I rely on these people every day, and I would not want to shock them or have them hear it from someone else.”
Although the restaurant’s end is near, most of Camino’s staff are committed to stay, and some former employees have even returned to work through its last days.
“When we had our 10th anniversary [in May], one of our cooks who had moved away came back to celebrate with us,” Hopelain said. “We told her we were looking to sell, and she said she wanted to be here until the end.” This rallying of employees has allowed Camino to be fully staffed for its final months, a time that Hopelain hopes will be a time “to celebrate what we have here, the people who have been a part of it — the employees and customers.”
The final closing date has yet to be determined, but Hopelain said Camino will remain open until Christmas, although the restaurant will be closed for the day on Dec. 24, Moore’s birthday. While a Christmas Eve birthday party for Moore may not be on the table, the couple plans to host several last hurrah festivities, including sit-down dinners and “raucous cocktail parties” for Camino friends and fans.
In the meantime, the restaurant has already been sold to new owners, although at this time Hopelain would not reveal any details about who they are. She said Camino’s sister restaurant in Oakland’s Longfellow neighborhood, The Kebabery, which will remain open.
“We’re talking about opening another one,” she said. The Kebabery, co-owned with Camino manager Brian Crookes, is a counter-service restaurant at 4201 Market St. (at 41st) that started as a spin-off from one of Camino’s themed Monday night dinners. The Kebabery is run by chef Traci Matsumoto-Esteban, another Camino alum. Its small kitchen allows just enough space to execute its short and straightforward dinner service menu, which offers a few meat and vegetable kebabs, served as plates or as sandwiches, with sides, salads and one dessert — chocolate pudding. Hopelain said they’re currently looking at a spot in the East Bay to open another Kebabery location, to allow them to grow the business, offer lunch service and maybe even do catering.
The Kebabery expansion is a new project for the couple to focus on, but Hopelain said she doesn’t expect they will be as involved in its day-to-day once it is open as they are at Camino. Building a dream restaurant around Moore’s skills as a chef was both a blessing and a curse, and that experience has the couple looking to simplify.
Hopelain had this piece of advice for others looking to open their own restaurants in the Bay Area: “Do it as inexpensively as possible. Having the burden of an expensive project at this moment is a difficult burden that we’ve had at Camino for a long time.”